The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

A Pageant In Coventry

The Coventry Carol
Notes to The Coventry Carol

There is quite a description of the pageantry surrounding the presentation of the pageants in Coventry on the Feast of Corpus Christi in Charles Knight, ed., The Penny Magazine, Vol. 2, September 17, 1842, pp. 365-368. Substantially the same text is found in another of his works, William Shakspere: A Biography (Routledge, 1867), beginning on p. 93.

Knight creates a word picture of Coventry as it might have appeared in 1580, if a young Will Shakespeare might have visited the town for the celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi.

Chapter VIII.


It is "the middle summer’s spring." On the day before the feast of Corpus Christi all the roads leading to Coventry have far more than their accustomed share of pedestrians and horsemen. The pageants are to be acted to-morrow, and perhaps for the last time. The preachers in their sermons have denounced them again and again; but since the Queen's Majesty was graciously pleased with the Hock-play at Kenilworth, that ancient sport, so dear to the men of Coventry, has been revived, and the Guilds have struggled against the preachers to prevent their old pageants from being suppressed. And why, say they, should they be suppressed? Have not they, the men of the Guilds, been accustomed to act their own pageants long after the Grey Friars had gone into obscurity? Has not the good city all that is needful for their proper performance? Do not they all know their parts, as arranged by the town-clerk? Are not their robes in goodly order, some new, and all untattered? Moreover, is not the trade of the city greatly declined—its blue thread thrust out by thread brought from beyond sea—its caps and girdles superseded by gear from London ;93-1 and was not in the old time "the confluence of people from far and near to see this show extraordinary great, and yielded no small advantage to this city?"93-2 The pageants shall be played in spite of the preachers; and so the bruit thereof goes through the country, and Coventry is still to see its accustomed crowds on the day of Corpus Christi.

Editor's Note: The Illustration above is the famed Coventry Cross, erected in 1544 and demolished in 1771. Concerning the Coventry Cross, Mr. Dugdale wrote: " ...that stately cross here [is] one of the chief things wherein this city most glories, which for workmanship and beauty is inferior to none in England." Concerning the demolition of the 1544 Cross, historian Charles Knight wrote concerning "the exquisitely beautiful Cross of Coventry," that "... the inhabitants of Coventry in the last century had not even the taste to admire what their forefathers had the liberality and taste to build, and so caused one of the finest pieces of architecture in the kingdom to be pulled down."

Their descendants thought better of that action and erected a replica of the Coventry Cross in 1976, located 100 meters from the original site.


It requires not the imagination of the romance-writer to assume that before William Shakspere [sic] was sixteen, that is, before the year 1580, when the pageants at Coventry, with one or two rare exceptions, were finally suppressed, he would be a spectator of one of these remarkable performances, which were in a few years wholly to perish; becoming, however, the foundations of a drama more suited to the altered spirit of the people, more universal in its range,—the drama of the laity, and not of‘ the church. What a glorious city must Coventry have been in the days when that youth first looked upon it—the "Prince's Chamber," as it was called, the "third city of the realm," a "shire-town,"94-1 full of stately buildings of great antiquity, unequalled once in the splendour of its monastic institutions, full of associations of regal state, and chivalry, and high events!

As he finally emerges from the rich woodlands and the elm-groves which reach from Kenilworth, there would that splendid city lie before him, surrounded by its high wall and its numerous gates, its three wondrous spires, which he had often gazed upon from the hill of Welcombe, rising up in matchless height and symmetry, its famous cross towering above the gabled roofs. At the other extremity of the wall, gates more massive and defying—a place of strength, even though no conqueror of Cressy now dwelt therein—a place of magnificence, though the hand of spoliation had been there most busy.

William Shakspere and his company ride through the gate of the Grey Friars, and they are presently in the heart of that city. Eager crowding is there already in these streets on that eve of Corpus Christi, for the waits are playing, and banners are hung out at the walls of the different Guilds. The citizens gathered round the Cross are eagerly discussing the particulars of to-morrow's show. Here and there one with a beetling brow indignantly denounces the superstitious and papistical observance; whilst the laughing smith or shearman, who is to play one of the magi on the morrow, describes the bravery of his new robe and the lustre of his pasteboard crown that has been fresh gilded.

The inns are full, "great and sumptuous inns," as Harrison describes those of this very day,

"able to lodge two hundred or three hundred persons, and their horses, at ease, and thereto, with a very short warning, make such provision for their diet as to him that is unacquainted withal may seem to be incredible: And it is a world to see how each owner of them contendeth with other for goodness of entertainment of their guests, as about fineness and change of linen, furniture of bedding, beauty of rooms, service at the table, costliness of plate, strength of drink, variety of wines, or well using of horses."

[Ed. Note: A paraphrase of William Harrison in Raphael Holinshed, Holingshed's Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Vol. 1 of 6: England. (1807), Chapter XVI, "Of Our Innes and Thorowfaires," pp. 414-415. It has been noted that the Chronicles, first published in 1577 with a second revised edition in 1587, was a primary reference work for Shakespeare for most of his histories and many of his other plays.]

So there would be no lack of cheer; and the hundreds that have come into Coventry will be fed and lodged better even than in London, whose inns, as the same authority tells us, are the worst in the kingdom. Piping and dancing is there in the chambers, madrigals worth the listening. But silence and sleep at last fitly prepare for a busy day. Perhaps, however, a stray minstrel might find his way to this solemnity, and forget the hour in the exercise of his vocation, like the very ancient anonymous poet of the Alliterative Metre, whose manuscript, probably of the date of Henry V., has contrived to escape destruction :—

"Ones y me ordayned, as y have ofte doon,
With frendes, and felawes, frendemen, and other;
And caught me in a company on Corpus Christi even,
Six, other seven myle, oute of Suthampton,
To take melodye, and mirthes, among my makes ;
With redyng of romaunces, and revelyng among,
The dym of the darknesse drowe into the west,
And began for to spryng in the grey day."95-1

Perhaps the inquiring youth from Stratford would meet with some old Coventry man, who would describe the pageants as they were acted by the Grey Friars before the dissolution of their religious house. The old man would tell him how these pageants, "acted with mighty state and reverence by the friars of this house, had theatres for the several scenes, very large and high, placed upon wheels, and drawn to all the eminent parts of the city for the better advantage of spectators ; and contained the story of the New Testament composed into old English rhyme, as appeareth by an ancient manuscript, entitled Ludus Corporis Christi, or Ludus Coventriæ."95-2 That ancient man, who might have been a friar himself, but felt it not safe to proclaim his vocation, might describe how Henry V. and his nobles took great delight in seeing the pageants; how Queen Margaret in the days of her prosperity came from Kenilworth to Coventry privily to see the play, and saw all the pageants played save one, which could not be played because night drew on; how the triumphant Richard III. came to see the Corpus Christi plays; and how Henry VII. much commended them.95-3 He could recite lines from these Corpus Christi plays with a reverential solemnity; lines that for the most part sounded rude in the ear of that youth, but which, nevertheless, had a vigorous simplicity, fit for the teaching of an uninstructed people. He would tell how in the play of ‘The Creation’ the pride of Lucifer disdained the worship of the angels, and how he was cast down—

"With mirth and joy neve: more to mell."

How in the play of ‘The Fall,’ Eve sang—

"In this garden I will go see
All the flowers of fair beauty,
And tasten the fruits of great plenty
   That be in Paradise ; "

and how the first pair lost that garden, and went forth into the land to labour. He could repeat, too, a hymn of Abel, very sweet in its music :—

"Almighty God, and full of might,
    By whom all thing is made of nought,
To thee my heart is ready dight,
    For upon thee is all my thought."

Moreover, in the play of ‘Noah,’ when the dove returned to the ark with the olive-branch, there was a joyful chorus, such as now could never be heard in the streets of Coventry :—

"Mare vidit et fugit,
Jordanis conversus est retrorsum.
Non nobis, Domine, non nobis,
Sed nomini tuo da gloriam."

Editor's Note: This is Psalm 113:3-4, King James Version translation is:
From the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same
     the LORD'S name is to be praised .
The LORD is high above all nations,
     and his glory above the heavens.

Much more would he have told of those ancient plays, forty-three in number, but time would not.96-1 He defended the objects for which they were instituted: the general spread of knowledge might have brought other teaching, but they familiarized the people with the great scriptural truths; they gave them amusements of a higher nature than military games, and contentions of mere brute force. They might be improved, and something like the drama of Greece and Rome might be founded upon them. But now the same class of subjects were to be handled by rude artificers, who would make them ridiculous. There was much truth in what the old man said; and the youth of Stratford would go thoughtfully to rest.

The morning of Corpus Christi comes, and soon after sunrise there is stir in the streets of Coventry. The old ordinances for this solemnity require that the Guilds should be at their posts at five o'clock. There is to be a solemn procession—formerly, indeed, after the performance of the pageant—and then, with hundreds of torches burning around the figures of our Lady and St. John, candlesticks and chalices of silver, banners of velvet and canopies of silk, and the members of the Trinity Guild and the Corpus Christi Guild bearing their crucifixes and candlesticks, with personations of the angel Gabriel lifting up the lily, the twelve apostles, and renowned virgins, especially St. Catherine and St. Margaret. The Reformation has, of course. destroyed much of this ceremonial; and, indeed, the spirit of it has in great part evaporated. But now, issuing from the many ways that lead to the cross, there is heard the melody of harpers and the voice of minstrelsy; trumpets sound, banners wave, riding-men come thick from their several halls; the mayor and aldermen in their robes, the city servants in proper liveries, St. George and the Dragon, and Herod on horseback. The bells ring, boughs are strewed in the streets, tapestry is hung out of the windows, officers in scarlet coats struggle in the crowd while the procession is marshalling. The crafts are getting into their ancient order, each craft with its streamer and its men in harness. There are "Fysshers and Cokes, —Baxters and Milners, —Bochers, —Whittawers and Glovers, —Pynners, Tylers, and Wrightes, — Skynners, — Barkers, — Corvysers,  — Smythes, — Wevers, — Wirdrawers, —Cardemakers, Sadelers, Peyntours, and Masons, —Gurdelers, —Taylours, Walkers, and Sherman, —Deysters, —Drapers, —Mercers."96-2

At length the procession is arranged. It parades through the principal lines of the city, from Bishopgate on the north to the Grey Friars’ Gate on the south, and from Broadgate on the west to Gosford Gate on the east. The crowd is thronging to the wide area on the north of Trinity Church and St. Michael's, for there is the pageant to be first performed. There was a high house or carriage which stood upon six wheels; it was divided into two rooms, one above the other. In the lower room were the performers ; the upper was the stage. This ponderous vehicle was painted and gilt, surmounted with burnished vanes and streamers, and decorated with imagery; it was hung round with curtains, and a painted cloth presented a picture of the subject that was to be performed. This simple stage had its machinery, too; it was fitted for the representation of an earthquake or a storm; and the pageant in most cases was concluded in the noise and flame of fireworks.

Image Above: Coventry Churches and Pageants, p. 97.

It is the pageant of the company of Shearmen and Tailors which is now to be performed, —the subject of the Birth of Christ and Offering of the Magi, with the Flight into Egypt and Murder of the Innocents. The eager multitudes are permitted to crowd within a reasonable distance of the car. There is a moveable scaffold erected for the more distinguished spectators. The men of the Guilds sit firm on their horses. Amidst the sound of harp and trumpet the curtains are withdrawn, and Isaiah appears, prophesying the blessing which is to come upon the earth. Gabriel announces to Mary the embassage upon which he is sent from Heaven. Then a dialogue between Mary and Joseph, and the scene changes to the field where shepherds are abiding in the darkness of the night — a night so dark that they know not where their sheep may be; they are cold and in great heaviness. Then the star shines, and they hear the song of "Gloria in excelsis Deo." A soft melody of concealed music hushes even the whispers of the Coventry audience; and three songs are sung, such as may abide in the remembrance of the people, and be repeated by them at their Christmas festivals. " The first the shepherds sing : "

"As I rode out this enders98-1 night,
Of three jolly shepherds I saw a sight,
And all about their fold a star shone bright;
They sang terli terlow :
So merrily the shepherds their pipes can blow."

There is then a song "the women sing : —

"Lully, lulla, you little tiny child :
By, by, lully, lullay, you little tiny child :
                            By, by, lully, lullay.

O sisters two, how may we do 
For to preserve this day
This poor youngling, for whom we do sing
By, by, lully, lullay?

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

That woe is me, poor child, for thee,
And ever mourn and say,
For thy parting neither say nor sing
By, by, lully, lullay."

The shepherds again take up the song :—

"Down from heaven, from heaven so high,
Of angels there came a great company,
With mirth, and joy, and great solemnity :
They sang terly, terlow :
So merrily the shepherds their pipes can blow."

The simple melody of these songs has come down to us; they are part songs. each having the treble, the tenor, and the bass.98-2 The star conducts the shepherds to the "crib of poor repast," where the child lies; and, with a simplicity which is highly characteristic, one presents the child his pipe, the second his hat, and the third his mittens. Prophets now come, who declare in lengthened rhyme the wonder and the blessing :—

"Neither in halls nor yet in bowers
Born would he not be,
Neither in castles nor yet in towers .
That seemly were to see."

The messenger of Herod succeeds; and very curious it is, and characteristic of a period when the king's laws were delivered in the language of the Conqueror, that he speaks in French. This circumstance would carry back the date of the play to the reign of Edward III., though the language is occasionally modernized. We have then the three kings with their gifts. They are brought before Herod, who treats them courteously, but is inexorable in his cruel decree. Herod rages in the streets; but the flight into Egypt takes place, and then the massacre. The address of the women to the pitiless soldiers, imploring, defying, is not the least curious part of the performance ; for example—

"Sir knightes, of your courtesy,
This day shame not your chivalry,
But on my child have pity,"

is the mild address of one mother. Another raves

"He that slays my child in sight,
If that my strokes on him may light,
Be he squire or knight,
I hold him but lost."

The fury of a third is more excessive :

"Sit he never so high in saddle,
But I shall make his brains addle,
And here with my pot ladle
With him will I fight."

We have little doubt that he who described the horrors of a siege,

“Whiles the mad mothers with their howls confus'd
Do break the clouds, as did the wives of Jewry
At Herod's bloody-hunting slaughtermen,"99-1

had heard the howlings of the women in the Coventry pageant. And so "fynes lude de taylars and scharmen."


93-1. See: 'A Briefe Conceipts of English Pollicye,' 1584. [Republished in 1876 by The New Shakespeare Society as "William Stafford's Compendious Or Briefe Examination of Certayne Ordinary Complaints of Diuers of our Countrymen in these our Dayes, A.D. 1581 (Otherwise called "A Briefe Conceipt of English Pollicy")"]  Return

93-2. Dugdale. [refers to William Dugdale, The Antiquities of Warwickshire Illustrated (London: Thomas Warren, 1656).]  Return

94-1. Coventry has altogether separate jurisdiction. It is "the County of the City of Coventry." It is called “ a shire-town" by Dugdale, to mark this distinction. Return

95-1. See Percy's 'Reliques:' On the Alliterative Metre. We give the lines as corrected in Sharp's 'Coventry Mysteries.’ [Percy's 'Reliques' refers to Thomas Percy, ed., Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. Vol. 2 of 2. (London: J. Dodsley, 1765), Book 3, "Essay on the Metre of Piere Plowman's Vision," pp. 260-270. There was a supplement to the essay, but I was unable to determine when Percy published it. But see H. B. Wheatley, ed., Reliques of Ancient English Poetry by Thomas Percy, Volume 1 of 3. (London: Bickers and Son, 1876). In that edition, at the end of Book 3 (in Volume 1), the original essay appears on pp. 375-389, and the additional materials on pp. 390-394.] Return

95-2. Dugdale. Return

95-3. See Sharp's quotations from the manuscript Annals of Coventry, 'Dissertation,' p. 4. Return

96-1. See the "Ludus Coventriae," published by the Shakespeare Society. Return

96-2. Sharp's ‘Dissertation,’ page 160. Return

98-1. Enders night = last night. Return

98-2. This very curious Pageant, essentially different from the same portion of Scripture-history in the 'Ludus Coventriæ,' is printed entire in Mr. Sharp's 'Dissertation,' as well as the score of these songs. Return

99-1. Henry V., Act III., Scene III. Return

Editor's Note:

This chapter continues on for another four pages, plus a note, with descriptions of other pageants and of other activities on the day of the Feast.

Source: Charles Knight, William Shakspere: A Biography. Third Edition, Revised and Augmented. (London: George Routledge and Sons, 1867), Chapter VIII, The Pageants, pp. 93-99. Much of the above originally appeared in Charles Knight, ed., The Penny Magazine, Vol. 2, September 17, 1842, pp. 365-368.

Print Page Return Home Page Close Window

If you would like to help support Hymns and Carols of Christmas, please click on the button below and make a donation.